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Fred Sheldon Donnelson

Fred Sheldon Donnelson

FRED SHELDON DONNELSON
1897 - 1974

Fred Donnelson was a native of the state of Iowa, born in a small town called Missouri Valley. Fred worked for the railroad as repair crewman. One day a rainstorm had swept violently over the corrugated fields of the Nebraska countryside earlier in the day. Young Mabel Peck dressed and went out to look for any of the family farm’s pigs that may have wandered off in the downpour. She crossed the railroad track and noticed that the rain had washed away one of the ties. The evening train was due so she stood atop the track and used her red cape to wave the train down as it approached. The train stopped in time to avert disaster.
The railroad people were grateful for Mabel’s quick action. Some officials came from company headquarters to meet her. They gave her a cash award and a lifetime pass on the railroad. A crew came to repair the track. One of the repair crew was A. H. Donnelson, who met and married Mabel. Seven years later, November 16, 1887, Fred Sheldon Donnelson was born in Missouri Valley, Iowa.

Saved during a Billy Sunday crusade
Mr. Donnelson continued working for the railroad, even after an accident claimed one of his legs. When he recovered from the accident, the company moved the Donnelsons to Marshalltown, Iowa. Fred was 12 years old when Billy Sunday brought his tabernacle to Marshalltown. During that meeting, Fred gave his heart to Jesus Christ. All in the family were baptized as they joined the First Baptist Church. Soon, Fred was busy, serving the church as janitor, choir member, Sunday school teacher, and eventually, as Sunday school superintendent.
When war came, in 1917, Fred left for the Army, but not before confessing to a young lady friend that the Lord had called him to be a preacher. He and the girl Effie exchanged letters during his two-year absence and when he returned from serving his country in the artillery, he asked her to marry him. She originally wanted to wait six years so the couple could receive their formal education, but after only two years, they married in Marshalltown on September 25, 1920. There was no time for a honeymoon, however. They immediately rushed back to Chicago to teach their Sunday school classes the next day.

Begins pastoral ministry while in school
Fred had spent one year at the University of Chicago when, disturbed by the liberal theology in the divinity school, he transferred to Wheaton. After a year there, he began studying at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He graduated from the seminary in 1925 and returned to Wheaton where he graduated in 1928.
During his school years, he pastored a small church north of Chicago, but the distance prevented his being on the field full time. He was discouraged when the church wanted to try another pastor, but the seminary president arranged for Donnelson to become a candidate for pastor of Messiah Baptist Church in Chicago.
Messiah called him to be their pastor and he and Effie worked there for eight years. It was a busy and active church. They did house-to-house visitation and canvassing, adopted Louis Entzminger’s six-point record system, held street meetings, and rented trucks to transport youth to activities.
Donnelson was an ardent supporter of the Baptist Bible Union and was asked to edit a paper for the Union called The Trumpet. He led Messiah to separate from its convention affiliation and become an independent Baptist church.
And they supported missionaries. One of those supported by Messiah was Mrs. W. S. Sweet, known as “Mother Sweet,” a missionary to China.

Called to China,
“If it is His will”
After their work at Messiah, the Donnelsons were called to First Baptist Church in Plainfield, Illinois. They loved the church and town, but the financial upheavals of the Great Depression had their counterparts in the spirits of Fred and Effie Donnelson. Neither knew why, but they were unsettled. Both were certain a change was coming their way.
In the waning days of the summer of 1932, Mrs. Sweet visited the Donnelsons in their church at Plainfield. She was nearly 70 years old. She and her husband had begun a mission in Hangchow, China, 40 years before. Now, Mr. Sweet was with the Lord. Though all her friends expected that she would remain in America, she believed she should return to the work.
At the breakfast table in their home that summer morning, she told the Donnelsons that she felt the Lord was about to call an American pastor and his family to work in China, as there was “a great need for a man to supervise the work.”
In the pulpit the following Sunday morning, Pastor Fred Donnelson of First Baptist Church in Plainfield, Illinois, found it difficult to deliver his prepared sermon. He looked up from his notes, laid them aside and said, “I believe that God is doing a work in our midst and desires some of us to make a new surrender to His will.” He met Effie at the altar where they surrendered themselves for the mission field.
When the two newly-called missionaries asked Mrs. Sweet if she thought God could use them in China, she replied, “If it is His will.” And with that cautionary note, the aged missionary brought out steamship schedules, maps, and a calendar. By the time the visit was over, the Donnelsons had chosen a departure date and a steamship.
Six months. Six months to sell the furniture and belongings. Six months to visit with churches and friends to raise support. Six months, and they would meet Mrs. Sweet in Hangchow and begin their missionary adventure and continue the work of the late Mr. Sweet.
Mrs. Sweet, who had meanwhile returned to China, wrote Fred, “We are praying you will bring a car with you, as it could be greatly used here.” Fred knew the well-used family Model A would not make the trip, so he joined in the same prayer. A few days later, a man from Minnesota phoned, saying that “the Lord had told him he was to give his new Ford to Fred Donnelson who was going to China.” It was the first of many miracles they experienced on the missionary road.

Mission work mix of
evangelism and training
It was the winter of 1932 and 1933, the years of the Great Depression. Money was hard to come by. Missionaries were coming home, not going out. So, when their ship, the Empress of Canada, departed Vancouver, February 25, 1933, the Donnelsons took third class passage to China, with not one supporting church in the U.S.
Hawaii. Japan. And then Shanghai, China. Mrs. Sweet met the new missionaries and guided them through customs. Then a train took them to Hangchow, where, finally, they were met by members of Central Baptist Church. Fred noticed about 15 young men in a corner. He asked Mrs. Sweet who they were. She said, “They are yours!” The young men were preachers who needed training. But first, Fred would have to learn the local dialect so he could communicate.
He preached his first Chinese sermon six months later. Soon, he was taking the preacher boys into the surrounding villages to give out tracts and hold meetings. They began several new chapels almost at once and soon Donnelson established a portable Bible school. He purchased a tent for the village meetings. He would take the tent to a village and leave it for about a month at a time. In the mornings, the young men would take Bible school courses. In the afternoons, they would visit in homes, inviting people to the evening services. Then they would hold an evening evangelistic service. In this way, he established 25 chapels in his first term.
During Donnelson’s three and four week absences, Effie was working in the Central Baptist Church. She taught music in the mission school and even developed a small orchestra. She helped in the services, which were held every evening, and continued to study the language.
Years later, she would write of these first-year experiences:

There is no comparison between living as we did in those early days, and the modern guided and pampered tourist who is lured by the commercial luxury and protection of sightseeing. Slow travel, walking long and tedious distances, obliged to live with meager sustenance of strange foods, customs, discomforts and follow with respect the many foreign customs while subtly persuading a suspicious and often hostile people to accept a new way of life, posed many and varied problems that were sometimes almost insurmountable. We were obliged to tolerate and share many adverse circumstances, attitudes, illnesses, living quarters and conditions such as no tourist can imagine.
Visitors view the passing scene with interest, sympathy, horror, amusement — in protective comfort. The true missionary enters into the daily lives of the people and shares their every difficulty with sympathetic and optimistic faith. If the foreign missionary cannot relate his gospel to the most intimate exigency of the potential convert, in masses or individuals, he is lost.
Condescension and superiority have no appeal. Only after you have won respect and trust as sincere friend and confidante will they reciprocate and even attempt to understand your message of Christian salvation. You live with them, and for their conversion to Christ as your one personal goal. Without such commitment and denial of self, there can be no victory.
In 1937, Japan and China were at war. Hangchow was continually under Japanese air attack. When the Japanese infantry landed troops nearby, the Donnelsons fled to Shanghai. They reluctantly left for a trip home and a furlough, but not before becoming burdened for the city of Shanghai. They vowed to return as soon as possible.

Home for awhile
but anxious to return
When the Donnelsons returned to the United States, they found the independent Baptist landscape had changed. The protest-based Baptist Bible Union had given way to the missionary vision-based World Fundamental Baptist Mis-sionary Fellowship. Church-es and preachers were attracted to a system of missionary support that showed signs of organization yet lacking the features of denominational control and bureaucratic inefficiency. Mrs. Sweet had telegraphed her enthusiastic support. Donnelson was able to use the network created by the fellowship to promote China missions. The pages of J. Frank Norris’s Fundamentalist constantly encouraged readers to send support for the new work to be built when the Donnelsons returned to Shanghai.
They did return in the fall of 1938. In the next three and a half years, they established Shanghai Baptist Tabernacle and a Bible school with dormitories for housing resident students. Fred followed the village chapel routine he had used in his first term. Mornings were devoted to serious classes and afternoons were spent visiting and meeting in homes. There was an evangelistic meeting every evening. And during all this time, Fred continued to oversee the Hangchow and country village work with the help of the Chinese workers.
The Shanghai work began to build a reputation. Mrs. Donnelson writes that many local shopkeepers were being saved and closing their doors on Sunday, a phenomenon unheard of in Asia. Although the church choir could not accept many invitations, it was invited to appear and sing in several places. The Tabernacle was filled with young people from universities and colleges studying to become doctors, teachers, and other professionals.
By this time, their son Paul was a senior in high school. With war between the U.S. and Japan beginning to seem inevitable (the Japanese were still occupying Hangchow and sections of Shanghai), the American consulate advised all citizens to leave China. Paul’s school would not finish the year, so the missionaries sent him home to live with his grandmother and graduate in the U.S. Just a few months later, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Prisoners of the Lord
On December 8, Fred, Effie, and and 15-year-old Lois Donnelson stood in the cold for hours in a registration line that stretched for several blocks. They received special armbands signifying their enemy status and were told they were confined to their home. Some weeks later, they closed their home and reported to an internment camp. They, along with 1,100 others, were placed on the campus of a bombed university campus.
Through the efforts of the American diplomats, the Japanese were persuaded to allow the camp occupants to govern themselves to an extent. There were some professional and skilled workers among the internees, so they set out to make the best of the situation and form a community. Though they faced insects, cold, and long political lectures, all on little food and comfort, life was bearable. Guards continually warned they had all escape routes blocked, but Mrs. Donnelson writes, “What they did not know was that there was one road that was impossible for them to close, and that was the road ‘Up’ to the very Throne of Grace.”
Health threats were the greatest worry. There were doctors in the camp, but no medicines. Food was so scarce and bad that Fred lost 45 pounds. Dysentery plagued the camp and Effie herself fell ill. She was, in fact, in the infirmary when word came that the prisoners were to board a ship for repatriation. Taking only the little the Japanese allowed, and with Effie able to be moved only on a stretcher, the missionary family boarded the transport that would take them to the neutral Swedish ship, the Gripsholm. So, after three and one half years of productive ministry, followed by 22 months as prisoners of war, the Donnelsons took their second leave of Shanghai. Eighty-four days later they entered New York Harbor and home.

Return to Shanghai cut short
by Communists
The war ended with the Japanese surrender to General MacArthur in 1945. Fred and Effie had spent the last two years of the war visiting churches and preparing for the day they could return to China. They experienced a happy reunion with the people of the Shanghai Tabernacle, and the work commenced again. After a year, they were joined by Lois and her new husband, Bill Logan. With Logan’s help, they began a radio broadcast ministry. The church grew and young people were again flocking to the Tabernacle.
Then the Communists began driving into south China. Fred sent his daughter and son-in-law back to the States, but he and Effie were determined to stay. It was only after members of the Shanghai Baptist Tabernacle implored him to leave for their own safety that he relented. In 1949, waiting until the last possible moment to evacuate, the Donnelsons left their missionary work in mainland China for the final time. Now in his fifties, Fred Donnelson appeared to have ended his missionary ministry.

His greatest work at midlife
J. Frank Norris, pastor of both First Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, and Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan (whose work was superintended day to day by G. B. Vick), had fully embraced the China mission of Fred and Effie Donnelson. Temple Baptist and Vick had been especially hospitable to the couple when they had returned from their prison camp experience. This relationship would have great significance in the near future.
The Donnelsons made a home in Ottumwa, Iowa, not knowing quite what to do except to visit among the churches of the missionary fellowship, telling their stories and presenting missionary work. This plan was interrupted in May 1950 when a group of pastors in the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship rejected Norris’s leadership (or, one might just as well say Norris rejected them) and formed the Baptist Bible Fellowship. Enough had been done and said since Donnelson’s homecoming that in the founding meeting of the new fellowship he said he felt like he was putting on a new suit, and he “hoped the right arm of the new suit would be a missionary arm.”
Within a few weeks, former WFBMF missionaries declared their intention to be BBF missionaries. The “mission office” was a corner of a desktop manned by the secretary of High Street Baptist Church in Spring-field, Missouri. Within a year, however, that changed when Fred Donnelson was officially appointed mission director. He had already been doing “director stuff,” teaching mission courses at the new Baptist Bible College and promoting missions among the churches.
Bill and Lois prepared to go to Taiwan (then known as Formosa), and the Donnelsons themselves longed to be among Chinese people even if they could not enter the mainland. Fellowship leaders, though, persuaded them that their work could be duplicated many times over if they remained in the U.S. and established the mission work of the BBF.
And those leaders were correct in their assessment. For 18 years, Donnelson oversaw the missionary program of the Baptist Bible Fellowship. He traveled, taught, and encouraged preachers, churches, and missionaries worldwide. During those years the BBFI adult overseas missionary force grew from fewer than 20 serving four fields to 300 on 26 fields. Mission office receipts grew from barely over $100,000 to over $2.8 million annually.
He left his position as mission director in 1968, retiring to write a missions textbook. He occasionally lectured on missions at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College and preached in churches. In 1972, Jerry Falwell offered him the chair of the mission department of the newly-formed Lynchburg Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. His tenure there was shortened, however, by illness. In early 1974, a private pilot transported the very ill missionary from Virginia to Springfield, Missouri. Upon landing, Donnelson was taken directly to the hospital. The next day, he fell asleep, never to awaken on earth again. On February 9, 1974, Fred Donnelson was taken to heaven.

They called him Mr. Missions
When a pastor would introduce Fred Donnelson as a guest speaker to his congregation, he would often call him Mr. Missions. Shortly after his death, Effie wrote a short biography of her husband, They Called Him “Mr. Missions.” As this brief profile has shown, this was no extravagant claim.
In 1968, Baptist Bible Tribune editor Noel Smith wrote of the significance of Fred Donnelson’s influence in the early days of the Baptist Bible Fellow-ship International:
In the first place, he has always insisted that the Baptist Bible Fel-lowship International should have its own missions work, that it should create its own corporate individuality and character and never be integrated into any other missionary organization.
In the second place, he has insisted that the Baptist Bible Fellowship missionaries should be trained in the Fellowship’s own college, so that they could get the feel of the Fellowship’s atmosphere and way of doing things, so they could have fellowship with students who would become Fellowship pastors, evangelists, and missionaries.
We take all this for granted today. But Dr. Donnelson’s intelligence and courage at the time policies were being established, deliberately or by practice, is chiefly the reason why we are able to take it for granted.
The history of the Baptist Bible Fellowship International will preserve F. S. Donnelson’s name as one of the Fellowship’s most important founders, and will credit him with being a chief contributor to basic policy that has been decisive in the unity, expansion, productiveness, and continuity of the organization.

Donnelson’s old friend G. B. Vick said on more than one occasion, “I do not believe there is any such thing as an indispensable man, but, if there is an indispensable man in the Baptist Bible Fellowship, it’s Fred S. Donnelson.”
No wonder they called him Mr. Missions.

 
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